Friday, October 15, 2010

Classic Movie Review: Billy Wilder's Sunset Blvd.

Sunset Blvd. is probably director Billy Wilder’s best film, but when you’re talking about a man who made Some Like It Hot, The Apartment, The Lost Weekend, Stalag 17 and Double Indemnity, you’re really just splitting hairs with a statement like that. As with most of the best films throughout history, it is great not only because every element is part of a unified vision that coalesces into a finished product, but also because it employs several groundbreaking techniques to achieve its goal. There’s a reason why it’s ranked 32 (at the time of writing) on the IMDb’s Top 250 and has made the top 20 American films on lists prepared by the AFI. It’s also had two lines consistently singled out as among the most memorable in film history: “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small;” “All right, Mr. DeMille. I’m ready for my closeup.”

In the story of a down-on-his-luck Hollywood screenwriter who becomes a gigolo to a faded star of the silent screen, it may have been a stroke of genius on the part of Wilder and co-writer Charles Brackett to have the story narrated from the grave. Joe Gillis (William Holden, in the role that shot him to stardom) opens the narration by describing the reason for the police cars and reporters rushing along Sunset Blvd. on such a beautiful day until the introduction settles on his own dead body in a pool. We don’t know from the outset that the man telling the story is also the dead man, but it should become clear fairly early on that they are one and the same. Having the omniscient narrator and the ignorant main character be the same person adds to the building of dramatic tension once you catch on to that fact. The story is a perfect example of how plotting is often not the most important element of dramatic storytelling. It’s the journey that takes the audience from A to B that matters most, even when you already know what B is.

The opening of a bright sunny day surrounding such dark deeds is par for the course for film noir, a genre that was in its heyday in 1950 when Sunset Blvd. was released. Wilder himself co-wrote and directed Double Indemnity several years earlier, which set the standard for the genre. Sunset Blvd. falls more into the film noir category for its tone and themes than for its plot elements. Can Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), the forgotten star, be considered a femme fatale? Only in the sense that she does cause Joe’s downfall in the end, but she’s not conniving in the way that Phyllis Dietrichson and Kitty March (two of the grandest of femmes fatales) are. However, she’s just as manipulative, if not more.

Swanson, of course, was a famous silent film star who hadn’t made any films in nearly ten years before Sunset Blvd. The film is also populated with cameo appearances by other notable Hollywood players including Cecil B. DeMille as himself and a few other faded silent stars (including Buster Keaton) as Desmond’s only remaining friends who occasionally come over to play bridge. Joe refers to them as the “waxworks” but he might as well be talking about Norma, who still deludes herself into the belief that she’ll make a big comeback. Wait, she doesn’t like that word – her “return”.

Wilder is known for directing his actors to performances that were natural for their day. Ray Milland’s disintegrating alcoholic in The Lost Weekend, Shirley MacLaine’s put-upon suicidal elevator operator in The Apartment and of course Holden in this film. So what’s the story with Swanson’s overly theatrical, larger-than-life performance? Is it Swanson’s inability to kick the kind of big gestures and too expressive faces that were standard in silent cinema? No, this is a deliberate performance meant not only to highlight Norma’s condition of being stuck in the days of old Hollywood, but also to demonstrate the delusion that she’s living a kind of Hollywood movie fantasy.

Then of course there’s the legendary director Erich von Stroheim as Norma’s devoted servant, Max, and (we learn later) her ex-husband and silent film director. Those revelations help explain why he’s so intent on maintaining the ruse that Norma is still adored by fans and has a chance at future success. He knows better than anyone what her madness entails and that any chink in the armor will lead to her immediate demise.

Norma and Max represent the ways Hollywood has the power to completely corrupt one’s soul. Joe is in the middle, he’s already been seduced and had mild success – just enough to give him a thirst for more, such that he’s willing to become the plaything of a Norma Desmond to get what he wants. The nubile innocent is embodied by Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson), a script reader at Paramount who has ideas of her own for a script and begins working in secret with Joe.

After Norma discovers the betrayal and crosses from one of Joe’s world to lay her hands on another by calling Betty on the phone, Joe invites Betty to see what he’s really been doing with Norma. His sacrifice of himself in order to save someone not yet fully seduced and corrupted by the allure of Hollywood success is the single redeeming act he commits.

Holden, Swanson, von Stroheim and Olson were all nominated for Oscars, making this one of the few films to receive Oscar nominations in each of the four acting categories. None of them won, but the film did pick up three awards for Franz Waxman’s haunting and enchanting musical score, Bracket’s and Wilder’s screenplay and the art direction.

The art direction is wonderful, most notable for the predominant setting of the film – Norma Desmond’s mansion. But the sumptuous sets, vaulted ceilings, tomb-like bedrooms and overgrown gardens would be nothing without the wonderful black and white cinematography of John Seitz, who also shot most of Wilder’s other films.

Sunset Blvd. is a sharp indictment of the way the movie business treats its legends as they age out of popularity and usefulness. While it has dated in some very minor ways, overall it still stands the test of time 60 years on. Hollywood may not engender the same kind of glamour that it once did, but we can perhaps see a bit of Norma Desmond in anyone who has unwillingly gone into retirement. And in Joe Gillis there’s a bit of everyone maybe in the way he’s scraping and clawing at any opportunity not just to climb out of debt, but to have a small taste of the life Norma Desmond once had.

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